Sugar baron’s massive land claim withdrawn

South Africa’s largest private sugar farmer, Charl Senekal, has been informed by acting Chief Land Claims Commissioner Sibusiso Gamede that two massive claims on his land are in the process of being degazetted.

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“I’m very happy that I will not lose the land,” said a relieved Senekal. More than 20 000ha of his land between Pongola and Mkuze has been under claim for about nine years. Of this, 16 000ha of mostly sugarcane and game was under claim by the Gumbi tribe and about 4 000ha of mostly grazing land was claimed by the Myeni tribe. Senekal had been told this was the largest claim on a single farmer.

He speculated there were a number of likely reasons behind the degazetting, including a lack of government funding and a weak case on the part of the state and claimants.An anthropological expert hired by Senekal found that some of the claimants had worked on Senekal’s land but had never had land rights. “We have a letter written by Chief Gumbi in 1960 asking for land. In it, he refers to them as a ‘landless tribe’, and says the tribe never had land,” explained Senekal.

Senekal said his relationship with the Commissioner and the Department of Land Affairs was good. “But I don’t think they did me a favour. They didn’t want to go to court because they realised I had a strong case.”What’s more, he added, the tribe has already been given some 24 000ha of grazing and game land and they’re not making a success of it.

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“Government is out of pocket and the claimants aren’t coming to the party.”Another contributing factor is Senekal’s philanthropic activities in the area. Should the land have been taken away, 1 200 jobs would have been lost. “I think government would rather keep me here and let me continue with what I am doing,” he said. However, he is concerned that the community might feel disgruntled. “It’s very important to me that my relationship with my neighbours is good,” he said.

“I’m really going to try my best to come up with some sort of a scheme or joint venture where they can earn a few bucks, or help them on their farms as a mentor at least.”

Senekal also said he hoped this would set a precedent, and that all other land claims in the area without merit would be withdrawn.